Retaining Black Faculty: 3 Mistakes Even Good Institutions Make

A pre-tenure job is like dating. Here are three dating mistakes even “good” institutions make that contribute to Black/African American faculty leaving. 

In her weekly newsletter the Monday Motivator, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President and CEO of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, wrote a post entitled “Don’t Act Like You’re Married When You’re Only Dating!” In this post, she cautions new faculty against overinvesting in their institution to the detriment of making progress in their research. Likening the pre-tenure years to a prolonged, dating relationship is apropos. Tenure represents an unparalleled level of job permanence but there is no guarantee you will get “the ring”, and your institution spends many years figuring out if you are “the one”. Moreover, in the first few years of “dating”, you are also trying to figure out if you can live with “this person”. Do they meet your needs? Do they value you the way you value yourself? Can you be happy with them for the long-term? As with dating, there is no perfect person or, in this case, job, and sometimes even “good” institutions make mistakes that contribute to faculty leaving.

Current trends show that while Black/African Americans make up 13% of the US population, they comprise only 6% of full-time faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the US. In recent times, many colleges and universities have stepped up efforts to recruit underrepresented minority faculty in response to students’ demands. These increased recruitment efforts must be matched by similar efforts to retain Black faculty. However, retention of Black faculty continues to be challenging.

While the challenges to retaining Black faculty are multi-pronged, some messages can radically change the way new faculty members value the institution early on and, thus their willingness to say, “I do.” Here are three dating mistakes even “good” institutions make:

  1. Tokenizing Black faculty. A token is someone who is distinctive because they are one of a few members of a particular demographic. When Black faculty are tokenized, they are singled out to serve on committees, advise students, consult on projects, and be featured in college magazines or websites. These invitations often arise because of the faculty member’s race and not because of their capacity to contribute meaningfully. While some of these examples seem innocuous and maybe even celebratory, over time, the targeting of faculty in these ways becomes burdensome and may interfere with their ability to meet tenure expectations. Tokenization conveys the message that Black faculty are “eye candy” whose sole purpose is to help the institution project a certain image. The institution just wants you for your body and not your mind.
  2. Overlooking Bias in Performance Evaluations. You start to get a sense for if an institution is serious about “popping the question” during faculty tenure and promotion reviews. Institutions may verbalize a commitment to considering racial dynamics during faculty reviews but the substance of this commitment really manifests when you are under review. For example, student evaluations are notoriously biased against women and faculty of color, however these biased evaluations are routinely considered in tenure and promotion process. Additionally, many faculty of color study topics or populations that are also underrepresented in their fields, which can lead to the devaluing of their scholarship during the review process. Institutions that do not explicitly and directly address these biases are communicating a very clear message: “it’s our way or the highway”. There will be no give and take in this relationship: you must fall in line or risk not getting tenure.
  3. Reacting Lukewarmly to Racist Incidents on Campus. In today’s society, there is heightened visibility of racist incidents on college campuses across the US. Handling these incidents can be challenging for institutions because of potential legal issues and institutional, state and federal policies. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of these incidents responses by students, faculty, and administrators can send messages that exacerbate the negative feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness, and fear that Black faculty may already have. When campus stakeholders communicate a deep investment in protecting perpetrators and excusing racist behavior, Black faculty may feel devalued at best, and at worst, unsafe.

In a time when institutions of higher education are facing budget cuts and there are fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs available, it might seem like a buyer’s market when Black faculty must settle for whatever job comes along. However, higher education institutions must save costs by reducing faculty turnover, while preparing to address the changing demographics of the US and increasing demands for faculty of color. Therefore, both faculty of color and institutions of higher education must maximize their first dates, avoid these commons mistakes, and keep in mind that having a diverse faculty begins with a focus on retention.

By Naila Smith, PhD

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